What It Takes

A Society, Culture and Arts podcast
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Best Episodes of What It Takes

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“Fourth grade is when I first began to believe in myself… I felt I could control the world.” On this episode of “What It Takes,” Oprah Winfrey talks frankly about the inner voice that allowed her to survive a trauma-filled childhood with unwavering focus and unrelenting determination, to become the top-ranking television talk show host of all time. She describes learning oration, at an age when most of us have yet to speak in full sentences. And she tells stories about intensely personal revelations she experienced WHILE she was on the air, interviewing other people. Oprah is currently the wealthiest African-American and the most philanthropic, but in this conversation, recorded in 1991, she defines her success in ways her fans might find surprising.
Lauryn Hill has had an outsized impact on the world of hip-hop, soul and R&B. She entered the music world in the mid-1990’s as one third of the band The Fugees, and soon after released a solo album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”. It was a phenomenon, and swept the Grammys. But then Ms. Hill pretty much vanished from music and public life, in an internal battle between fame, family and faith. On this episode you’ll hear the incomparable and enigmatic Lauryn Hill, speaking in 2000, just as she had begun her retreat. She’s open, honest, raw and very funny about the transformation she was undergoing.
In honor of the 4th of July, we are featuring the foremost champion of civil liberties in America, and a man who embodies the American Dream. Anthony Romero tells the inspiring story here of his path from a housing project in New York City to an Ivy League university and eventually to the head of the ACLU, where he has been Executive Director since 2001. Romero also talks about the tremendous growth of the organization during his tenure, the non-partisan philosophy that drives their work, and some of the issues they are most focused on at the moment. And he reveals a powerful personal story about overcoming mistakes in life. #WhatItTakesNow www.achievement.org
She was a Maori child from a working class family, who grew up by the sea in a remote New Zealand town... So how did Kiri Te Kanawa rise to become one of the greatest sopranos of all time? She tells the story here, starting with a vision her mother had of her singing at Covent Garden, a vision that became a reality. She also tells the hair-raising tale of her accidental debut at the Met; she was given just three hours notice, but it turned her into an international opera superstar, overnight.  And she describes with great amusement, her invitation to sing at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist has covered wars and humanitarian crises in 70 countries, including Iraq, Libya & Afghanistan. She has been kidnapped twice and she’s been badly injured on the job, but she is determined to open our eyes to the state of the world and the human condition, no matter the risk. Lynsey Addario is a lively storyteller who brings emotion and humor to every tale, whether she’s describing growing up the child of hairdressers, the harrowing details of her kidnapping in Libya, or the heartbreaking work of documenting women who die in childbirth.
When James Earl Jones speaks, his voice reverberates so deeply that you can almost feel it in your own chest. Think Darth Vader. For 60 years now, Jones has been captivating audiences with that voice and with his commanding presence -- on stage and on screen. In this episode, he talks about how he overcame a stutter that silenced him for years. He explains how the radicalism of the 1960's changed the world of acting, and opened the door to his success. And he describes how growing up on a humble farm taught him to treasure contentment over happiness. The theme music for What It Takes is written and performed by KaraSquare.com.
Artificial Intelligence is already changing the course of society, and it’s only in its infancy. Hear one of the most innovative and successful thinkers in the field describe the coming revolutions A.I. is bringing about in medicine and in environmental science. Demis Hassabis, a neuroscientist and former game developer, describes how his company, Deep Mind, is developing technologies that can extend the power of the human brain, in order to solve some of the biggest problems facing mankind. Along the way, he hopes to unlock some of the mysteries of the universe. This episode also includes excerpts of earlier pioneers in the field of Artificial Intelligence: Marvin Minsky and Ray Kurzweil.
This son of a sharecropper tells the story of how he grew up to become a legendary leader of the Civil Rights Movement and a 17-term Congressman from the state of Georgia. He describes his political and spiritual awakenings, and recounts how he learned to live fearlessly and non-violently, despite the many beatings and arrests he endured -- at lunch counter sit-ins and during the march from Selma to Montgomery.  You'll hear archival sound from those events as well, and an excerpt of John Lewis speaking at the March on Washington when he was just 23 years old.   Some of the musical excerpts in the episode, including "We Shall Overcome," are from the Charlie Haden & Hank Jones album, "Steal Away," on Verve Records.
When Englishman Roger Bannister was studying medicine at Oxford in the 1940's, he began to have great success as a member of the track team. He knew enough about physiology to question a long-held belief: that humans were simply not built to run a mile in less than four minutes. He was determined to shatter that myth, and he did. In this episode, Bannister describes how he developed his own unique approach to training, one that allowed him to very gradually improve speed, while leaving time for his studies in neuroscience. After eight years, he was ready. At a meet held in May of 1954, he stunned the world, running a mile in 3:59.4. It is considered one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time, alongside Sir Edmund Hillary's ascent of Mt. Everest.
During March Madness, can you think of anything more satisfying to do between games than listen to an interview with legendary coach John Wooden?! Wooden led UCLA to more NCAA championships than any other team in history, and he did it with a quiet, old-fashioned approach that challenged notions of what it takes to win. Wooden talks about his fatherly love for the players, his famous pyramid of success, and the difference between reputation and character. He also explains why basketball is the greatest spectator sport there is.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the deciding vote in critical Supreme Court cases - from abortion to campaign finance to same-sex marriage - talks about his path to the judiciary. He also eloquently describes his devotion to the ideals of freedom and human dignity, and to civil discourse, in an era when it is more badly needed than ever.
Esperanza Spalding - bass player, composer, lyricist and singer - is one of the most exciting artists in contemporary jazz. Wayne Shorter is a legendary saxophonist and composer whose career began in the bebop era of the 1950's, and has continued until today. He began playing with Art Blakey, became part of Miles Davis' groundbreaking quintet, and then formed one of the most influential fusion jazz bands, "Weather Report." Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding are from different jazz eras and from different sides of the country, but they have become friends and artistic soulmates, who share many of the same views about making music and the creative process.
When Thomas Keller was a dishwasher, he learned all the basic lessons he'd need to become one of America's greatest chefs and restaurateurs. Keller owns The French Laundry and Per Se, two of the only restaurants in America to carry three Michelin stars. Along the way he learned other important lessons, of course, and each one left him a great story to tell. As we enter this food-frenzy of a holiday season, take a listen to Thomas Keller's bumpy and glorious ride to the pinnacle of his profession. **Production Music in this episode comes from BenSound.com, Kara Square, and PremiumBeat.com
Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Pepé Le Pew were all brought to life in the hands of Chuck Jones. If there's a Loony Tunes or a Merrie Melodies cartoon that you carry in your heart, Jones was probably behind it. (What's Opera Doc, anyone?) He was artist, animator and director of 300 cartoons, in a career that spanned from the 1930's to the 1990's. Among the many awards he received was an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. In this episode he talks about the influence of Mark Twain, the origin of Daffy's voice, and the childhood pet cat that showed him the absurd humor of animals.
Peter Jackson grew up in a country without any film industry or film schools, and yet, he only ever wanted to do one thing: make movies. The story of how he came to direct The Lord of the Rings (and Heavenly Creatures, The Hobbit, King Kong, and They Shall Not Grow Old) is both improbable and inspiring. He tells the story here of how he quit school to earn enough money for a 16 millimeter camera, and then, while learning to use it, inadvertently created his first feature length film -- a gory, sci fi comedy that landed him at the Cannes Film Festival. Jackson also describes what an audacious and unlikely idea it was that he, a New Zealander who made campy “splatter movies” as he calls them, would get the rights and the funding to turn the Lord of the Rings into a film trilogy. But the Rings of Power were clearly on his side. They were three of the most technically sophisticated and highest earning films of all time.
If you can name one living architect, it's probably Frank Gehry. Gehry has designed some of the world's most recognizable and beloved buildings... buildings that are surprising and playful, like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. In this episode, Gehry talks about what compelled him to put the art back in architecture. He explains his obsession with fish and motion and curvilinear forms. And he remembers the professor who told him he'd never make it in architecture.
Maya Angelou was a civil rights activist and a friend of Martin Luther King Jr., years before she became known throughout the world for her memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." In this, the second of two Maya Angelou podcasts, she offers personal reflections of Dr. King as a poet and as a man with great humility (and humor). She talks about the state of the African-American community decades later, and the importance of using language to uplift (describing an encounter she had with Tupac Shakur to make her point). And in her powerful, unique voice, she reminds us of the eternal relevance of Dr. King's wisdom.
Quincy Jones’s fingerprints are all over America’s popular music. If you like Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, or hundreds of other artists, you have heard his work, whether as an instrumentalist, a composer, a conductor, an arranger or a producer. He’s also scored dozens of movies and television shows, and been a philanthropist and activist. It is hard to overstate the impact he has had over the past 70 years. But this prodigiously productive and talented man came from difficult circumstances. In this episode you’ll hear Quincy Jones tell how he survived and made his own way, to have outsized impact on jazz, rock, soul, r&b and pop. Oh yeah, and you’ll hear some GREAT music!
The most decorated regiment in US history was the 442nd, a segregated Japanese-American unit that fought in Europe after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But while they were bravely risking their lives for their country, 120,000 of their fellow Japanese-Americans were languishing in internment camps, simply because of their ethnicity. U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye was in the first group. Representative Norman Mineta was in the second. Both have stories that are profoundly disturbing, but are also a testament to the triumph of the human spirit.
John Updike used his unique literary talents to peel back the layers of middle-class American life, exposing its less-than-placid exterior. He was one of the most prolific and esteemed American writers of his generation, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his "Rabbit" novels but was as well known for his stories and essays and works of literary criticism. He talks here about his very beginnings in a small Pennsylvania town, and about his mother, who inspired him with her own efforts to get published. Updike also discusses his storied association with The New Yorker, which began the month he completed college and lasted until his death in 2009. And he describes the nitty-gritty of his daily writing routine.
This global icon of the concert stage was planning to become a doctor, but her voice was too powerful a force. Jessye Norman tells the story of falling in love with opera on the radio, and hearing Marian Anderson’s voice for the first time on a neighbor’s record player. And she describes growing up in the segregated South, with parents and teachers who encouraged her passions and her talents. Norman went on to become one of the most celebrated sopranos of all time in the world of opera and classical music — truly earning the title of Diva. But she talks here about choosing to sing spirituals, popular American music and jazz as well, and living a life in music on her own terms.
He is one of the most compelling storytellers of our time... a novelist who addresses broad societal themes while plumbing the depths of intimate human relationships. Ian McEwan, the author of "Atonement," "Amsterdam" and recently, "Machines Like Me," talks here about beautifully constructed sentences. He explains the "pleasure principle" of literature. And in describing how much research it takes to create his characters, he tells a delightful story about the time he was mistaken for a neurosurgeon. He also talks about a deep family secret - a brother he didn't know existed until he was in his 50's. McEwan reads passages from "Atonement," and from his new novel "Machines Like Me." And he talks about the need for solitude in a writer's life.You can see the Academy of Achievement's video archives at www.achievement.org. #WhatItTakesNow
Albie Sachs awoke one day in 1988 in a Mozambican hospital, with no remembrance of the car bomb that had maimed his body. But it hadn't broken his will to remain in the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa. This episode is drawn from Sachs's 3-hour conversation with the Academy of Achievement. He tells stories, with love and with humor, about joining the movement as a young white teenager in the 1950's, about his detentions in solitary confinement, about helping to write his nation's new constitution, and about becoming one of the first justices on The Constitutional Court of South Africa.
This is the story of a true original... a woman who dominated the extreme sport of dog sled racing for years, was a four-time winner of the Iditarod (the grueling, thousand-mile race across Alaska). Susan Butcher, a legend of the Alaskan frontier, died at the age of 51 from Leukemia, but at the peak of her career as a racer, she gave this revealing interview. In it, she explains why she chose to live in a cabin without running water or electricity, 40 miles from the nearest neighbor, in weather conditions that most could not survive. She also describes the resistance she faced from male mushers during her early years as an Iditarod competitor. And she talks about the profound, almost mystical relationship she had with her beloved dogs.
These three visionaries changed the way we live our daily lives. You'll hear remarkable archival recordings of each, when they were young successful entrepreneurs, but before history had proven the scale of their impact. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, describes how, as a teenager, he first envisioned the potential for computers to become fixtures in our homes. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google, talk about their accidental discovery of the algorithm that would allow us to search and make sense of the new world-wide web's information explosion. And they all talk about taking risks to embrace the future.
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Podcast Details

Aug 3rd, 2015
Latest Episode
Aug 10th, 2020
Release Period
No. of Episodes
Avg. Episode Length
44 minutes

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